Zimmerman May Sue NBC for Libel

George Zimmerman’s lawyer has said he is considering suing NBC for libel over the network’s editing of the 911 call Zimmerman made on the night he killed Trayvon Martin. But legal experts say the case would be a long shot.

“NBC intentionally edited George Zimmerman’s non-emergency call to make it appear he is a racist, then they repeatedly broadcast that edited tape to the nation,” Mark O’Mara told TheWrap, a Hollywood news source, on Oct. 4. “What NBC did is outrageous.”

Why Zimmerman has waited until now to complain is unclear. A spokesperson for O’Mara said he could not comment on the possible libel action.


Dicey Edits, but Libelous?

NBC’s Today Show broadcast an edited version of Zimmerman’s 911 call back in March. Here’s how the show presented it, according to an April report on CNN:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good . . . He looks black.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah, a dark hoodie.

But here’s what was actually in that ellipsis, or three little dots:

Dispatcher: This guy, is he white, black or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

The edits make it appear as if Zimmerman volunteered information about Martin’s race, as opposed to responding to the dispatcher’s question about race. After launching an internal investigation into the omission, NBC reportedly fired a national correspondent and a local affiliate’s reporter.

“Due in large part to NBC’s actions, George has had to live in hiding, in fear for his life,” O’Mara said in his statement, confirming that “we are considering a lawsuit against NBC for defamation, and we have collaborated with outside counsel to advise Mr. Zimmerman.”


Libel Is a Long Haul

If such a case is in fact filed, Zimmerman will have to address several elements of libel that may prove sticky.

First, NBC didn’t actually call Zimmerman a racist; the edits possibly only imply it. The network did actually indicate something was missing with the ellipsis. So technically, the quote is correct.

“Mr. Zimmerman can take advantage of an unusual tort called ‘defamation by implication,'” says Daniel Aaronson, a lawyer with Benjamin, Aaronson, Edinger & Patanzo in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and the president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association. “That claim involves statements, records, images and the like which are literally true but which have been edited in such a fashion as to defame the subject.”

Aaronson adds that Zimmerman will also face a challenge in proving he was legally damaged. “Mr. Zimmerman will have to show that the NBC report caused people to think less of him,” he says. “It is not clear that being portrayed as a racist disparages Mr. Zimmerman’s character any more than being publicly accused of murder.”

Any outcome of his criminal trial won’t help him prove he was damaged either. “If he is convicted or takes a plea to the murder charges, his reputation will be sullied for reasons having little to do with the NBC report,” notes Aaronson. “If he is acquitted, that vindication would probably mitigate most of the damages Mr. Zimmerman may have suffered in the public eye.”

Then there’s the higher standard he will face as a “public figure” – which he almost certainly is, according to legal experts interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel about the possible libel action. While a regular person must only show that defamatory statements were made negligently, a public figure must show they were made with “actual malice” – knowing that they were false or recklessly disregarding whether they were.

Professor Al Tompkins

NBC could be in for a long haul, even if it ultimately wins. Zimmerman is clearly picking his battles at this point, and suing NBC is good for his public image because it “puts him in a victim’s role rather than a perpetrator’s role,” Al Tompkins, senior faculty in broadcast and online with the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida, told the Sentinel.

It could be another source of money for Zimmerman, since media outlets often settle such cases rather than go for the long fight. But Tomkins said he “couldn’t imagine NBC settling a case like this,” which would mean a long haul for Zimmerman as well, and even more legal fees to pay.  


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